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Simple Inspections to keep your sailing boat's engine in top shape

by Captain John Jamieson on 4 Sep 2011
Which of these pictures shows what you’d rather be doing next voyage? .. .
Do you know the five best ways to keep your sailing boat's diesel engine running like a lion--and save you huge dollars in the future? John Jamieson (Captain John) here shows you the most vital engine checks you need to make aboard your cruising sailboat for trouble-free cruising.


You don't need to be a mechanic to keep your sailing boat's diesel running in tip-top shape. I'm a ten-thumbed sailor when it comes to auxiliaries, but I've learned just what's needed to keep these beasts happy and roaring like a well-fed lion.

Diesel engine guru Nigel Calder says that diesel engines '...require little routine maintenance, but the little maintenance they do need is absolutely necessary'. Calder specifies three major areas of concern to all skippers of sail or power: clean air, clean fuel, and clean oil.

That's because the tiniest speck of dirt or contamination inside will throw your iron-genny into a temper tantrum that creates a chain reaction of problems. And that can lead to $1000's in repair bills and wasted cruise time while you wait for parts and repairs. Calder says that 'once dirt gets into an engine, properly cleaning it out is impossible'. Follow these easy five vital inspections and preventative maintenance recommendations to keep your diesel engine in great shape.

1. Test the Heat Exchanger Water Level:

Check the engine coolant level through the oblong-shaped heat exchanger header tank (see illustration) on top of the engine. Make sure the header tank is cool to the touch, remove the radiator pressure cap on top of the tank and stick a finger in. Keep the coolant level within a half inch of the top.

Many engines have an externally mounted expansion tank that collects freshwater coolant as it circulates through the engine. Make sure the expansion tank coolant level stays within a half inch of the full mark (or at the level indicated by your manual).

2. Replace the Air Filter:

Diesels require lots of squeaky clean air to run well. If dust enters your engine, it could affect the compression. Without good compression, your engine won't burn diesel fuel all the way. That unburned fuel spits out your exhaust as black smoke. Your engine will no longer have the power it once had.

Swap out air filters often. It's one of the most forgotten components on small diesels because it often hides on one side of the engine. Carry spares aboard if you cruise. In a pinch, take the filter out and tap it on all sides around the surface to remove dirt and dust.

3. Swap Out All Fuel Filters:.

90% of all diesel engine problems are related to dirt, water, and bacteria in your fuel. If these contaminants make it up to your injectors, you could end up with $100s or $1000s in repair bills. Cut these robbers off at the pass with good, powerful filtration.

The primary filter serves as the first guardian between your fuel tank and small diesel engine. It stops big particles of dirt and grime. The best type of primary filter has a clear, separator bowl on the lower part of the filter.

The separator bowl traps water and contaminants and has a drain plug on the bottom. Shine a light through the bowl. If it's dirty, drain the water and contaminants. Replace the filter element on top of the separator bowl.

If your engine uses a non-separator type of filter, you will be unable to see the condition of the fuel. Change the filter element inside a non-separator type of fuel filter at least once a year to be on the safe side.

The secondary filter serves as the final guardian before fuel flows into your engine. It stops tiny, microscopic particles of dirt and grime that were missed by the primary filter.

Locate the secondary filter on or near the engine body (see illustration). On many engines, it's camouflaged like a chameleon. Follow the fuel line from the primary filter up to your engine to find the secondary filter. Change the secondary filter element at least once a year to protect your delicate and expensive injectors.

4. Change the Oil, Gasket, and Filter:

Your engine relies on oil for lubrication, cooling, and dirt-trapping. Always change the filter and gasket when you change the oil. Run your engine for a few minutes ahead of time to get any contaminants into the old oil. This makes draining more complete.

5. Install a New Raw-Water Impeller Pump:

Your raw water pump draws water from the sea, through the sea-water strainer and up to the engine. In small diesel engines with separate fresh water systems, sea water provides a cooling jacket to lower internal temperatures. In straight raw-water cooled engines, you need every bit of that sea water circulation to keep your engine cool and happy.

Make these diesel engine inspections often to keep your cruising sailboat in tip-top shape. You will save lots of money for cruising--and lots of time for sailing--wherever in the world you choose to cruise!

John Jamieson (Captain John) with 25+ years of experience shows sailing skippers the skills they need for shorthanded sailing success. Visit his website at www.skippertips.com and sign up for a free sailing tips newsletter and learn how you can gain instant access to hundreds of sailing articles, sailing video tutorials, sailing topic eBooks, and live discussion forums.

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